Tom Rafferty arrived in Dallas in 1976 with a history of winning. During his final two years of college at Penn State, the Nittany Lions were 19-5 and played in two bowl games, concluding the 1974 season with a victory over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
The trend continued when the fourth-round draft choice began playing for the Cowboys across town at Texas Stadium. An 11-3 record in his rookie year was topped in 1977 when they went 12-2 and won the league championship.
"The '77 season was pretty much a dream year," said Rafferty. "It was the first year I started at right guard and we went to the Super Bowl and won the damn thing [over Denver]. Everything just went right that year; '77 was a pretty special year."
A fixture at guard for four seasons, Rafferty took one step to his left in 1981 and became Dallas' man in the middle.
"I wasn't even the backup center in 1981. I was just the right guard and Jim Cooper was the backup center to Robert Shaw," Rafferty said. "Fitz [John Fitzgerald] had been placed on injured reserve. He had a bad shoulder and he was out for the year and then Shaw hurt his knee and they asked me to play center for three weeks. They go, 'He's going to be back in three weeks and then you can go back to playing guard.'
"The bottom line is they wanted me to play center because my backup was going to do a better job at guard then Cooper's backup was going to do at tackle. They thought we'd be a stronger line. So, long story short, three weeks turned into nine years."
The first chapters of that story were a little eye-opening for Rafferty. In addition to now having to snap the ball on every play, he was seeing new things when he looked through his facemask.
"The 3-4 (defensive alignment) started to come in back then. That was different," Rafferty said. "Most of the teams played even fronts my first couple of years in the league. And so the biggest change I saw was a lot more odd-man fronts. A lot more nose guards.
"A 4-3 defensive tackle plays the nose position differently than a regular nose guard plays it. So it got a little tougher playing against the prototypical nose tackle that was 5-foot-10 and weighed 400 pounds. They were just fireplugs."
Rafferty scuffled with those fireplugs for 14 seasons overall. Playing in 203 regular-season games, his durability is something in which he takes the most pride from his football career.
"I pretty much played every game of my career up until the last year – in '89 I missed a game," said Rafferty. "But I had a pretty good string going. I was pretty durable and I think I was a solid player. I wasn't the best two or three guys maybe, but I was up there and I played well consistently."
That includes on the rare occasion when he was on the receiving end of a Danny White pass. Well, a ricocheted pass, which happened on Oct. 16, 1983 against Philadelphia.
"My guy tipped it," Rafferty said. "All you have to do is get beat quick and turn around and the ball's right there. And I did. I made a bad move on the guy. And the guy that never puts a move on anybody actually puts a move on and he went around me and tipped the pass and it ended up in my arms. The funny thing was that everybody was laughing after the play, but the next play we had to kick a field goal. So I had to be serious about it. I didn't want to be laughing about it and then screw up the snap.
"So I snapped the ball and went into the locker room at halftime and caught a lot of joking from the players. And then when we went into the film session on Monday, I got your typical Landryism. Coach Landry said, 'Tom, we're trying to kick a field goal and you're running out the clock.' So all I said was, 'Coach, I had one eye on the goal line and one eye on the clock.' Well, I can't remember if I said that. I don't think I was brave enough to say it." [embedded_ad]
Rafferty and his wife, Donna, have made their home in the Dallas suburb of Keller since he hung up his helmet following the 1989 season. He works in equipment sales for BSN Sports [BSNSports.com].
"It's just fun. I get to interact a lot with coaches and stay involved to some degree," Rafferty said. "You're in locker rooms and out on the fields all the time talking to people. It's been very beneficial to have played for the Cowboys. I have a lot of name recognition down here. I talk to a lot of coaches. Fewer and fewer remember as they get younger, but it's good. I still have a good customer base and a lot of guys who I have a good rapport with."